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Australian refugee policy sparks Nauru riots

July 22, 2013 at 6:08 AM   |   Comments

CANBERRA, Australia, July 22 (UPI) -- Police on the Micronesian island of Nauru arrested at least 59 people who escaped from an asylum detention center after riots broke out, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

At one point, a policeman was stabbed and held hostage, and fires broke out in the center, the Herald reported.

About 200 detained asylum seekers were involved in the unrest following last week's announcement by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that no more asylum seekers would be allowed to settle in Australia.

The Republic of Nauru -- formerly the British colony of Pleasant Island -- is the world's smallest republic, covering just over 8 square miles. About 10,000 people live on Nauru, which has been under Australian protection since 1968.

The Nauru detainees pelted police and security guards with rocks and sticks, and at least five explosions were heard and several cars set on fire. As many as 1,000 officers are estimated to have responded to the call for deputies distributed by text messages on the island's cellphone network.

Riots caused $24,000 damage at the facility shortly after it opened last September.

The Herald cited a source who said the Nauru government was angry it had no warning Rudd was going to make his controversial announcement putting Australia off limits to asylum seekers.

Rudd said from now on all boat people -- thousands arrive each year in Australian waters -- would be sent to detention centers in Papua New Guinea off Australia's northern coast for processing and settlement in a third country.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year announced the so-called Pacific Solution as an amendment to the Immigration Act. It allowed creation of the offshore processing centers, a report by The Age newspaper said at the time.

The proposed changes allow the transfer of asylum seekers in detention centers, including the main one on Australia's Indian Ocean possession Christmas Island, to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of fewer than 7 million, has had close relations with Australia, which governed it until independence in 1975.

Papua New Guinea's detention center is on the rugged, jungle-covered Manus Island off its northern coast. Manus covers 800 square miles and has a population of 43,000, a 2002 census indicated.

Amid heavy criticism from Australian human rights campaigners, the Australian government closed the Manus center as well as one on Nauru in 2008 after operating them for about six years.

Successive Australian governments for the past decade have been wrestling with an increasing number of boat people heading to Australia to claim asylum.

So far this year, smugglers have shipped more than 15,000 asylum-seekers to Australia, The Australian newspaper said.

"Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north. Our country has had enough of people-smugglers exploiting asylum-seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas," Rudd said.

Rudd, whose Labor government faces a highly charged federal election in a few weeks, said he recognized his new policy was tough and would likely be challenged in the courts. He said the policy would be reviewed after a year.

Australian Opposition Liberal leader Tony Abbott welcomed the initiative as a "very promising development," but said it would never work "with Mr. Rudd in charge."

Abbott said it was Labor's fifth time dealing with asylum seekers and the agreement was about processing and "not stopping the boats."

"This is Australia's day of shame when it comes to the treatment of refugees," Green Party leader Christine Milne said.

Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International Australia's refugee campaign coordinator, said in a release the Pacific Solution shows "not only a complete disregard for asylum-seekers but absolute contempt for legal and moral obligations."

"Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world's most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key," McGregor said.

An opinion piece in The Australian said Papua New Guinea already has a refugee problem. About 9,000 people have fled across the border to escape ethnic violence and oppression in the neighboring Indonesian region of West Papua.

The murder rate in Papua New Guinea is 13 times that of Australia, recent World Health Organization figures show.

Corruption, too, is considerable in Papua New Guinea, the opinion piece said. Transparency International ranks Papua New Guinea 150 out of 176 countries it surveyed.

Australians are scheduled to go the polls in a national election in September, although a date hasn't been confirmed.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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